On my best days, I stand 5’6”. My wife, in a display of self-sacrifice typical of her, wore flats in our wedding so as not to—quite literally—show me up. The bond I feel to Zacchaeus, then, should come as little surprise. We have relegated his story from Luke 19 to the cute side of Christianity. If you grew up in an evangelical church, odds are you remember this tune:
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.”
A song like that never quite dislodges itself from your head, yet adult believers rarely sing it back or spend time considering Zacchaeus. Revisiting his brief moment within the story of Jesus reveals significant lessons and serious stakes. Zacchaeus isn’t just for children’s church or puppet shows—his interaction with Jesus raises implications we might rather avoid.
A RICH MAN BROUGHT LOW
Let’s quickly re-acquaint ourselves with Zacchaeus, this time with less music.
The first details Luke shares about Zacchaeus are his vocation and class. He clocked in and out as a tax collector, a vocation despised all along history’s continuum from Jesus’ day up through our own. It’s safe to assume Zacchaeus tried to dodge the question, “So, what do you do?” in social situations, though the story suggests he wasn’t invited to many parties.
Luke spells out Zacchaeus’ status as a matter of fact: “He was rich.” But his wealth didn’t come with a place of honor. As Jesus, the provocative religious teacher, walks through Jericho, Zacchaeus wants to see the man for himself, like everyone else in town. But he found himself crowded out and unable to see the mysterious rabbi.
“He was trying to see who Jesus was, but he was not able because of the crowd, since he was a short man. So running ahead, he climbed up a sycamore tree to see Jesus, since he was about to pass that way” (Luke 19:3-4).
On his way by, Jesus looks up and calls out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down because today it is necessary for me to stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, pleasing the diminutive tax collector and flustering the crowd, who know not only what Zacchaeus does for a living, but what he’s like.
Jesus’ welcome and acceptance are not lost on Zacchaeus. Immediately, he pledges to give half of what he owns to relieve the poor and, hinting at ongoing sin, says he’ll repay “four times as much” as he has extorted from others (Luke 19:8).
Jesus, who always knew what he was doing, acknowledges he was after Zacchaeus’ heart from the jump and declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ home. Then Jesus restates his mission and locates Zacchaeus within it: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”
Zacchaeus’ story isn’t about climbing trees. It’s about a change of heart, a reorientation of desire that expresses itself through action. If like Zacchaeus, we want to experience salvation, then his response to Jesus warrants deeper reflection.
Zacchaeus’ response to Christ was a desire to change the way he lived. Zacchaeus had little public credibility left, but he was willing to debase himself further to see who Jesus was. Paul puts the same desire in his own words: “More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).
We sing words like these on Sunday mornings. In our public prayers, small groups, and coffee shop conversations, we claim we want to see and know God. But how many of us actually look for Jesus everywhere we go? How often do we consider knowing him—intimately, completely—as important as knowing about him?
Zacchaeus should be commended. Once he had even an inkling of who Jesus was, he put aside everything to see him more clearly. Will we follow his lead?
REJOICE AT AMAZING GRACE
Jesus’ outstretched hand of friendship to tax-collecting Zacchaeus laid the crowd’s heart bare. Rather than be amazed that Jesus wanted to spend time with this sinful man, they recoiled.
And so it is with us. We believe God can save the well-mannered pillar of our community. They’re already so good and so decent, we reason. We even recognize his intent with those on the other end of the spectrum, the poor or homeless person with whom we have no history.
We express less enthusiasm when Jesus begins to draw someone we can’t stand, someone who has hurt us, or someone we’ve watched lay waste to their relationships.
The childhood bully, the cheating spouse, the cheerleader for another political tribe. Can we find it within ourselves to recognize grace at work within them? Or will we grumble like the crowd, shaking our heads and wagging our fingers at Jesus?
A WHOLE GOSPEL
Even if you’re able to make peace with the story so far, Zacchaeus has to go and do something that completely meddles with our comfortable ideas of call-and-response, conversion, and repentance.
The evidence that he already has seen something in Jesus, that the Spirit truly is loosed within his heart, comes as he promises to restore what he has stolen and make others whole (v. 8).
We plunder others all the time, even when we don’t recognize it. We pinch a little dignity, steal a piece of their reputation in the eyes of others. What if the gospel, as it works within us, directed us to make others whole?
Our movement toward healing and restoration is not a means of earning favor with God. We can only make others whole because God has made us whole. He has restored all that sin, death and the locust has taken—and now, out of his storehouse supply (Phil. 4:19), we can play our small part, imitating him by doing the same.
BIG LESSONS FROM A LITTLE MAN
How different would our lives and relationships look if we adopted Zacchaeus’ mindset? We would repay any honor we’ve stolen, with interest (Rom. 12:10). Forgiveness withheld would be replaced with reconciliation. What we extract through shame and guilt would find its recompense in acceptance and affirmation.
Following in the footsteps of Zacchaeus, bending our gospel encounter into real life, we would pursue a whole and unified church by making others whole.
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and he only gets ten verses in Scripture. But the lessons therein loom large. Disciples who truly want to see Jesus would do well to hear ourselves in his song and sing it over and over.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri, where he also serves Karis Church as a lay pastor. Find his work at facebook.com/aarikdanielsenwrites and follow him on Twitter: @aarikdanielsen.